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A speed camera installed on Horner Ave. facing west outside Sir Adam Beck Junior School, in Toronto on Feb. 3, 2020. Fifty cameras have been installed near schools in a six-month pilot project to assess their impact on road safety.Fred Lum

Four of Toronto’s speed cameras have been stolen before the devices can even start generating tickets, complicating the rollout of a controversial technology that safety advocates warn is too concentrated on quiet local roads.

Fifty cameras have been installed near schools in a six-month pilot project to assess their impact on road safety. Each has a warning sign nearby, and for the first three months, speeding drivers will get cautionary letters instead of tickets.

These letters are expected to start going out this week, but some people were acting out their opposition before a single driver had been reprimanded. The lens of one camera was spray-painted last month, and four of the 365-kilogram cameras have vanished, although city staff are unsure whether they were stolen for parts or as a protest.

Two of the missing cameras – which sit at ground level to facilitate being moved from location to location and are not currently fastened down – have been replaced, according to City of Toronto spokesman Hakeem Muhammad, with the other two coming by next week. The cameras each cost about $50,000 to operate for a year and are the property of the supplier, which is responsible for replacing missing ones.

Even once all 50 are back in place, the main concern for some critics is that the pilot, by putting so many cameras on quieter roads, might be set up to fail.

“If the camera’s up for three months and catches two speeders, I think that it’s easy for them to cancel the program,” said Sam Perry, who works to improve bicycling in Toronto through the CultureLink’s Families and Educators for Safe Cycling program.

“If you put it on Avenue Road and it makes the street considerably safer, and it illustrates the problem, then I think it’s a lot harder to cancel it.”

Under provincial rules, the speed cameras must be placed near schools, in designated “community safety zones.” The city has the power to determine the scope of such safety zones, the province says.

“As such, municipalities are effectively eligible to use [speed enforcement] cameras in municipal areas where speeding and road safety are of greatest concern,” Ministry of Transportation spokesman Joshua Henry said in an e-mail.

City data show that seven of the 50 cameras were installed alongside arterial roads, 16 are on collector roads, which are smaller, and 27 on local roads. Only one camera is at a spot with a speed limit higher than 40 kilometres an hour. The city’s own statistics show that Toronto’s deadliest roads are arterials, particularly the wide, fast-flowing ones in the suburbs.

Barbara Gray, general manager of the city’s Transportation Services, said more cameras could end up on arterials as they are moved around throughout the pilot, generating sufficient data that their impact can be properly analyzed.

“We believe that it’s quite important to play the long game here and work to make sure that automated speed enforcement stays in place and that the province is comfortable with our approach,” Ms. Gray said.

“We had to come up with a solution for this initial rollout that everybody was on board with … and the place where everybody was on board was in community safety zones around schools. So that’s why we’re starting where we’re starting.”

Dave Twaddle, a director in the Transportation Services department, said the city chose the current locations by running an analysis of the roads near schools, including past incidences of collisions, to find the most suitable spots.

Measures to protect children are invariably politically popular. In Toronto, the majority of road safety spending under the banner of Vision Zero – which aims to eliminate traffic deaths and serious injuries – has gone to school zones, although a minority of casualties are in these areas.

“Councillors like to target [children’s safety] because it is a vote-getter,” said Michael Black, who sits on the steering committee of the advocacy group Walk Toronto and argued the focus on children implies their lives are worth more than those of seniors, a demographic overrepresented in pedestrian death statistics.

“During elections, they kiss babies, and when it comes to safety they do the equivalent, they set up school zones.”

Mr. Black said he would like the whole city declared a community safety zone, which would in theory allow cameras to be installed anywhere. But even without that step, a city staff report from December shows about 130 kilometres of major arterials are near schools where cameras could be placed.

“Speed is a huge factor in whether or not somebody survives a collision,” said Kevin Rupasinghe, campaigns manager for the advocacy group Cycle Toronto. “So by not placing these cameras on the most dangerous streets to begin with, there are very likely actual lives that will be lost or changed forever.”